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Cognitive mapping

Andresen, M.A. (2010). Cognitive mapping. In B.S. Fisher & S.P. Lab (Eds.), Encyclopedia of victimology and crime prevention (pp. 114 – 117). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Published onJan 06, 2010
Cognitive mapping

Cognitive mapping, also referred to as mental mapping, is an activity undertaken by all species. This activity may be thought of as a coping mechanism that is used to help us decide where we need to go within our environment and how we should get there. Though the first application of cognitive mapping was published in 1913 by Professor Trowbridge, the academic roots of cognitive mapping are commonly placed in cognitive psychology. Edward Tolman studies rat movements though mazes in the search of food. In these studies, the time the rats took to get to the food source decreased rather sharply and quickly, indicating that the rats learned the layout of the maze. In other words, they formed a cognitive, or mental, map of maze to facilitate their finding subsistence. Though (human) geographers often claim cognitive mapping to be a sub-field of geography, contained within behavioural geography, cognitive mapping is best understood as a component of the field of ecology.

Ecology is the study of how organisms, such as humans, adapt to an ever-changing and sometimes hostile environment. Because of our social, biological, and cultural needs, we have routine activities that we perform within our environment. Our environment, however, is very complex and we must have a method of organizing all of this environmental information. Therefore, environmental cognition (cognitive mapping) is as old as life itself because we must perceive our environment in order to survive within it. This entry explores cognitive mapping by defining the process of cognitive mapping, the output of cognitive mapping (the cognitive map), and how cognitive mapping may be used to understand crime and its corresponding victimization.

The Process of Cognitive Mapping

Cognitive mapping begins with the acquisition of spatial knowledge. As outlined by Kevin Lynch, the there are three fundamental components of our spatial knowledge: landmarks, activity nodes, and pathways. Landmarks are discrete locations within our environment, such as an intersection, a building, or some other identifiable object within our environment; activity nodes may be thought of as areas that we spend our time, such as shopping malls or markets, entertainment districts, or industrial districts; and pathways are the ways in which we move from activity node to activity node and landmark to landmark. Because the information we gather for the landmarks, activity nodes, and pathways are spatial, we are subsequently able to form topographical relationships of these components to create cognitive maps.

The Cognitive Map

The cognitive map, also referred to as the mental map, is a representation of our environment that is used to guide the ways in which we move through our environment: in order to get to work we must move from one activity node to another activity node, and the best method of such a movement is along a particular pathway. Consequently, cognitive maps simultaneously define and limit our actions.

In order for our cognitive maps to be functional, Stephen Kaplan lists four minimal elements. First, we need to be able to recognize where we are and identify “common” objects within the environment; such common objects would be particular types of buildings, roads, and other pathways. Second, we need to know what leads to what and where; in other words, how should we travel from one place to another—we need to understand locations, direction, and distance. Third, we need to be able to learn and modify our cognitive maps as necessary because a static cognitive map quickly becomes non-function, particularly because of experiences within the environment. Fourth, based on any new information, we need to be willing to take new or alternative courses of action; in other words, we need to be willing to use our new updated cognitive map, not sticking to our old ways despite new spatial information.

As outlined by Roger Downs and David Stea, cognitive map acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information regarding the relative locations or places within our environment. Because cognitive mapping is a process, the cognitive maps are in a constant state of flux. However, particularly because many aspects of our environment change slowly, cognitive maps are relatively fixed for extended periods of time. Cognitive maps are subject to change, but only when new spatial information we deem essential for our survival is obtained. Our current cognitive maps are also necessarily incomplete because they only contain information relevant to each individual. As such, cognitive maps are a distorted view of reality (our perceptions) that are altered through new primary information (direct experience) as well as new secondary information (spatial knowledge obtained from others or data such as maps and the media). Cognitive mapping not only gathers information regarding the location and items within our environment, but also the events and experiences that occur within that environment, only adding to the distortion of reality.

The Cognitive Map as a Cartogram

A cartogram is a form of spatial visualization that purposefully distorts standard planimetric maps of our environment. This distortion, however, is performed in order to convey the importance of particular spatial information. For example, a relatively small geographic area that contains a very large number of people (an urban centre with many high rises) is expanded to represent the volume of people in the area rather than the geographic area; there is also a corresponding reduction in the size of areas that contain very few people. A cognitive map operates on a similar principle: an individual’s spatial knowledge. Those places for which an individual has a lot of spatial knowledge are represented in the cognitive map as being rather large, whereas those places for which an individual has very little spatial knowledge are represented in the cognitive map as being small.

This analogy is instructive for understanding why our cognitive maps are always incomplete and why cognitive maps are relatively unique to each individual. Not all people have the same degree of spatial knowledge for all places. Therefore, different areas of individuals’ cognitive maps are disproportionately large and small. Moreover, even if two (or more) individuals have similar spatial knowledge regarding a particular location (the actual physical environment such as buildings and roads), their experiences within that same place have been (and are) different such that no two individuals can have the same distorted view of that environment.

Because we have different degrees of spatial knowledge of the locations within our environment, we do not frequent all locations within our environment. This is why our cognitive map both defines and limits our movements; whenever possible, we go to and move through places we know. This characteristic of our behaviour has implications for crime and the corresponding victimization.

Cognitive Mapping and Crime

The implications for this spatial behaviour resulting from cognitive maps are in regard to both victimization and offending patterns. Once we leave the relatively protective environment of the home, we are much more vulnerable to criminal victimization. Therefore, because our cognitive maps define where we spend most of our time, they also define where we are most likely to become victims of crime. With regard to offending, once the decision to offend has been made, potential offenders will search out and evaluate targets using their cognitive maps. Just like any other activity, the search for criminal targets occurs within the portions of the environment we know best. Only if suitable targets are not found or exhausted will a potential offender expand his or her horizons.

Paul and Patricia Brantingham formulate their geometric theory of crime using concepts very similar to that of the cognitive map. Invoking the concepts of activity nodes and pathways, Paul and Patricia Brantingham theorize about our awareness and activity spaces; awareness space consists of the places we have spatial knowledge and activity space consists of the places we move through and spend our time. As such, awareness and activity spaces would be the areas on our cognitive map that are disproportionately large. Though this is an over-simplification of the geometric theory of crime, when the activity spaces a potential offender and potential victim intersect, there is great potential for criminal victimization. This may be stated alternatively, as follows: as the degree of the cognitive maps of a potential offender and potential victim increasingly intersect, so does the probability for criminal victimization. In other words, if the disproportionately large areas of a potential offender’s cognitive map intersect to a significant degree with the disproportionately large areas of a potential victim’s cognitive map, the probability of criminal victimization is greater. This greater probability is present because they both spend significant portions of their time in close proximity to each other and, therefore, operate within the same area. It is important to note at this point that spatial knowledge is not necessarily positive; rather, spatial knowledge may very well be negative, meaning that an individual does not feel comfortable at a particular location.

Cognitive Mapping and the Fear of Crime

If an individual is does not feel comfortable in a particular place, it is often stated that the individual has a fear of place. When that fear is related to crime, it is a fear of crime. This fear of crime is part of our cognitive maps and is related both to the objective aspects (physical environment) and our individual experiences (prior victimization, for example).

As outline by Patricia Gilmartin, perceived and actual distances depend upon the perceived safety of a neighbourhood. This holds for most people. There are also meaningful differences in the cognitive maps of men and women, young and old. These differences manifest themselves through differential levels of fear and perceptions of risk. Generally speaking, women and the elderly limit and/or alter their routine activities more than men and the young, respectively. Women and men, young and old, feel safe and unsafe in different places at different times of the day. These different fears of crime, as all components of the cognitive map, are based on both primary and secondary information. The end result is a vastly different cognitive map of the fear of crime for different groups of individuals. Consequently, cognitive maps are at once unique to individuals, but also share commonalities within different groups of individuals.

Martin A. Andresen

See also Cognitive-Behavioral; Crime Mapping; Fear of Crime; Fear of Crime, Individual and Community-level Effects; Fear of Crime, Measurement of Hot Spots of Fear; Prospective Mapping

Further Readings

Brantingham, P.L., & Brantingham, P.J. (1981). Notes of the geometry of crime. In P.J. Brantingham & P.L. Brantingham (Eds.), Environmental Criminology (pp. 27 – 53). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Canter, D., & Hodge, S. (2000). Criminals’ mental maps. In L.S. Turnbull, E.H. Hendrix, & B.D. Dent (Eds.), Atlas of Crime: Mapping the Criminal Landscape (pp. 186 – 191). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Downs, R.M., & Stea, D. (1973). Cognitive maps and spatial behavior: process and products. In R.M. Downs & D. Stea (Eds.), Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior (pp. 8 – 26). Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.

Gilmartin, P. (2000). Cognitive maps and the fear of crime. In L.S. Turnbull, E.H. Hendrix, & B.D. Dent (Eds.), Atlas of Crime: Mapping the Criminal Landscape (pp. 192 – 198). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Helstrup, T., & Magnussen, S. (2001). The mental representation of familiar, long-distance, journeys. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21, 411 – 421.

Kaplan, S. (1973). Cognitive maps in perception and thought. In R.M. Downs & D. Stea (Eds.), Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior (pp. 63 – 78). Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.

Nichols, W.W., Jr. (1980). Mental maps, social characteristics, and criminal mobility. In D.E. Georges-Abeyie & K.D. Harries (Eds.), Crime: A Spatial Perspective (pp. 156 – 166). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Rengert. G.F., & Pelfrey, W.V., Jr. (1998). Cognitive mapping of the city center: comparative perceptions of dangerous places. Crime Prevention Studies, 8, 193 – 217.

Smith, C.J., & Patterson, G.E. (1980). Cognitive mapping and the subjective geography of crime. In D.E. Georges-Abeyie & K.D. Harries (Eds.), Crime: A Spatial Perspective (pp. 205 – 218). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Tolman, E.C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review, 55, 189 – 208.

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